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The RIAA speaks--and it gets worse

Don Reisinger had the chance to sit down with the RIAA for a frank interview. Unfortunately, the answers he received make the organization look worse.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
6 min read

UPDATE: You can now read the full transcript of the RIAA interview here.

The RIAA has quickly become one of the most disliked organizations in the world. Working ostensibly with the interests of the artists in mind, the organization has single-handedly instituted a policy of lawsuits and education in an attempt to curb the piracy of music.

Although this has been going on for quite some time now, I recently read a press release from the organization outlining its successes and what 2008 will look like for its College Deterrence program.

The press release tells us that the RIAA (on behalf of the music industry) has sent out "a new wave of 407 pre-litigation settlement letters to 18 universities nationwide as part of an ongoing campaign against online music theft. The letters reflect evidence of significant abuse of campus computer networks for the purpose of copyright infringement."

Once those students receive the pre-litigation settlement letters, they have the opportunity to surf over to the P2P Lawsuits Web page to settle with the RIAA before a court battle ensues.

Of course, the story doesn't quite end there.

To get a feeling for why the RIAA has implemented this strategy and has seemingly ignored the piracy cartels all over the world, choosing the soft target instead, I got in touch with the organization and asked a representative 10 questions to clear the air. This transcript will be made available tomorrow on The Digital Home.

Unfortunately, the answers given proved even more damning to an organization that is already sitting on a powder keg.

Perhaps more than anything, college students simply don't trust the RIAA and its questionable practices. As Cara Duckworth explained to me, "It was becoming clearer that despite cool new legal services and the ongoing educational efforts, too many students--some of music's biggest fans--were getting their music illegally and learning the wrong lessons about stealing and the law. Bringing lawsuits was by no means our first choice, but a necessary step we had to take."

Of course, whether or not lawsuits were not truly the first choice is debatable. In fact, judging by the lack of other alternatives offered except to say that the RIAA is "actively investing resources in the education of students of all ages on the value of music and importance of copyrights," there isn't too much evidence to suggest lawsuits isn't the organization's favorite form of deterrence.

Beyond that, the general theme of the interview with the RIAA could be characterized by a general lack of understanding and at some points, somewhat insulting.

When asked why the RIAA is going after an easy target--college students--the response made me cringe: "College students have reached a stage in life when their music habits are crystallized," Duckworth said. "And their appreciation for intellectual property has not yet reached its full development."

Sadly, this statement tells you everything you need to know about the RIAA. Does this organization actually believe that people who have the right to vote and go to war don't have the ability to make sound decisions about intellectual property? Maybe it has nothing to do with lack of development and everything to do with an extreme distaste for the recording industry.

The RIAA's discussion on students (and the general lack of understanding thereof) doesn't quite end there. Duckworth went on to explain that college students "used to be some of music's greatest fans, unfortunately that is no longer the case."

According to Duckworth, students who steal copyrighted music are not fans of music? I simply don't understand the logic. Look, I'm not here to endorse the stealing of music and I encourage everyone to buy it. But by undermining the intelligence of college students and insulting them because of their perceived "lack of development," I don't see how anything could (or will) change.

Beyond that, the real issue lies not with college students stealing music, but with huge piracy cartels overseas that have created a bit of a cottage industry out of stealing and redistributing media. Because of that, I asked Duckworth about it. After telling me that college students have become the world's largest group of pirates, Duckworth explained that the RIAA wants to "take action against the services themselves" and indicated that the organization is "working with policymakers in Washington to encourage countries whose copyright laws have not kept up with the times or who do not appropriately enforce intellectual property violations" to catch up.

Regardless, it doesn't seem to me that the RIAA is doing enough. Why are criminal enterprises that contribute a significant amount to the piracy losses that the organization is so quick to cite allowed to run amok, while grandmothers and students who pirate music are targeted? Sure, those people shouldn't be pirating music either, but shouldn't the organization go after the kingpins instead of the low-hanging fruit? I certainly think so.

Intriguingly, the RIAA believes its policy of suing violators is working, but depending on the study you read, piracy has flattened out or grown at a relatively steady, albeit slower, pace when compared with its meteoric rise just after the turn of the millennium. According to BigChampagne, a company that specializes in tracking P2P and Torrent use, May 2006 saw 9 million individuals connected on peer sharing sites, compared with 9.35 million just one year later. Beyond that, NPD found that 15 million people downloaded songs from P2P networks in 2006 and an estimated 5 billion files were added to computers--a 47 percent increase over the prior year.

As if that wasn't enough, a more recent study from NPD claims only 50 percent of Mac users paid for their music in the third quarter of 2007, compared with 16 percent of PC users. If true, are lawsuits really working?

According to Duckworth, lawsuits have made "people more aware of what is legal and illegal when it comes to downloading music." But if you ask me, the RIAA's policy of utilizing lawsuits to make people "more aware" is creating a more hostile environment that only harms the organization's standing in the court of public opinion.

Of course, Duckworth disagrees. She contends that although some may dislike the RIAA, "amongst the general public, the favorability ratings of the record industry remain as positive as ever and surpass other forms of entertainment like movie or TV studios." Of course, the question is not necessarily whether the public likes Sony BMG or EMI, the real question is whether or not people like the RIAA itself. And so far, very few do.

In the end, Duckworth says that we should be skeptical when we hear news on the RIAA. According to her, she would rather "give [us] the facts and encourage [us] not to believe everything [we] read that aggressively villainies the organization."

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. When an objective observer looks at some of the actions taken by the RIAA over the past few years, including hiding behind the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 2003 to force Verizon to hand over private customer information, asking the court to force a 10-year old girl into a deposition over a lawsuit with her mother, and a host of others where the organization chose to attack low-hanging fruit instead of finding and charging those enterprises that have allowed piracy to become so ubiquitous in the first place, it's no wonder people dislike this organization.

In an environment where technology is changing by the minute, there are still some organizations that flounder in the past. Is piracy wrong? Yes. Should people pirate? No. But what the RIAA doesn't understand is that its policy of lawsuits only enrages people and fails to bring about change.

That said, it seems like the writing is on the wall. The RIAA will continue to employ its bullying tactics in the hopes that piracy will stop, but the recording industry will refuse to realize that what we really want as consumers is the ability to take music and do what we want with it. Beyond that, the industry will never realize that although I can copy a track I purchased and send it along to a friend, sales will continue to rise because most people are honest and are willing (and ready) to do the right thing.

I commend the RIAA for standing up to the issues I raised and answering them as forthrightly as possible. And while we may not have received the answers we would have liked, we gleaned even more knowledge of this organization than previously known.

Intriguingly, ArsTechnica reported on Friday that the recording industry has some doubts about the viability of the RIAA and at least one of the major labels--EMI--is considering pulling all of its funding by March 31, if major changes in policy and structure are not made. Regardless, there is no indication that we can expect a major shift going forward. And I, for one, am extremely saddened to hear that.